Things Fall Apart

Achebe begins Chapter five by describing the Feast of the New Yam. What does the reader learn about Umuofian culture through this description?

chapter 5

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Just before the harvest, the village holds the Feast of the New Yam to give thanks to the earth goddess, Ani. Okonkwo doesn’t really care for feasts because he considers them times of idleness. The women thoroughly scrub and decorate their huts, throw away all of their unused yams from the previous year, and use cam wood to paint their skin and that of their children with decorative designs. With nothing to do, Okonkwo becomes angry, and he finally comes up with an excuse to beat his second wife, Ekwefi. He then decides to go hunting with his gun. Okonkwo is not a good hunter, however, and Ekwefi mutters a snide remark under her breath about “guns that never shot.” In a fit of fury, he shoots the gun at her but misses.

The religious values of the Igbo emphasize the shared benefits of peaceful, harmonious relations. The Igbo always consult the Oracle before declaring war, for they fear punishment from their gods should they declare war without just cause. Their religion also emphasizes the individual’s obligation to the community. When Okonkwo breaks the peace during the sacred week, the priest chastises him for endangering the entire community by risking the earth deity’s wrath. He refuses Okonkwo’s offer of a kola nut, expressing disagreement peacefully. This parrying of potential violence on the interpersonal level reflects the culture’s tradition of avoiding violence and war whenever possible.

Moreover, the belief in the chi, an individual’s personal god, also smooths possible tensions in the Igbo community. The chi allows individuals to attribute some portion of their failures and successes to divine influence, thus lessening the shame of the former and pride of the latter. This belief encourages respect between individuals; the men are thus able to settle a dispute between Okonkwo and a man whom he insults without resorting to personal attacks.

Although traditional Igbo culture is fairly democratic in nature, it is also profoundly patriarchal. Wife-beating is an accepted practice. Moreover, femininity is associated with weakness while masculinity is associated with strength. It is no coincidence that the word that refers to a titleless man also means “woman.” A man is not believed to be “manly” if he cannot control his women. Okonkwo frequently beats his wives, and the only emotion he allows himself to display is anger. He does not particularly like feasts, because the idleness that they involve makes him feel emasculated. Okonkwo’s frustration at this idleness causes him to act violently, breaking the spirit of the celebration.